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Talking to Your Child About Puberty

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
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Start "The Talks" Early

Kids see and hear a lot about sex and relationships on TV and online. By the time they near puberty, they may be familiar with some advanced ideas. But talking about puberty is still an important job for parents because not all this other information is reliable.

Don't wait for your kids to come to you with questions about their changing body. They might not, especially if they don’t know that it's OK to ask you about this sensitive topic.

Talking about puberty isn’t a one-time conversation. Talk to your kids about the changes their bodies will go through as they grow. Some girls start puberty at 8 years old, and some boys do by 9. So you may need to start these talks earlier than you think. Discuss the physical and emotional changes that come with puberty before they begin.

The Timing With Boys and Girls

Normally, puberty starts in girls when they’re between 8 and 14 years old. With girls, parents should talk about menstruation before their daughters start their periods. If they don’t know what's happening, girls can be scared by the sight and location of the blood.

Most girls get their first period when they're 12 or 13 years old, which is about 2 or 2½ years after they begin puberty. But some get their periods as early as age 9, while others get it as late as age 16.

In boys, puberty normally starts when they’re 9 to 15 years. On average, boys begin going through puberty a little later than girls, usually around age 10 or 11.

Many kids have some sex education at school. Often, boys and girls are taught separately. The girls hear mostly about menstruation and training bras, while boys hear about erections and changing voices. But girls also should learn about the changes boys go through and boys should learn about those affecting girls. Check with teachers about their lesson plans so you know what gaps you need to fill. It's a good idea to review the lessons with your child, as kids often still have questions about some topics.

What Should I Say?

When talking to kids about puberty, be reassuring. This time brings so many changes that it's easy for kids to feel insecure and alone.

Often, kids going through puberty worry about how they look. It can help them to know that everyone goes through these changes, many of them awkward. They also should know that the timing of these changes can vary greatly. Acne, mood changes, growth spurts, and hormonal changes — it's all part of growing up and everyone goes through it, but not always at the same pace.

Girls may begin puberty as early as second or third grade. It can be upsetting if your daughter is the first one to get a training bra, for example. She may feel alone and awkward or like all eyes are on her.

With boys, changes include the cracking and then deepening of the voice, and the growth of facial hair. A boy who is an early or late bloomer might feel awkward or like he's the subject of stares from his classmates.

Kids should know these things about puberty:

  • Girls become more rounded, especially in the hips and legs.
  • Girls' breasts begin to swell and then grow, sometimes one faster than the other.
  • Girls and boys get pubic hair and underarm hair, and their leg hair becomes thicker and darker.
  • Both girls and boys often get acne and start to sweat more.
  • Both girls and boys have a growth spurt.
  • Boys' penises and testicles grow larger.
  • Boys' voices change and become deeper.
  • Boys grow facial hair and their muscles get bigger.
  • Boys sometimes have wet dreams, which means they ejaculate in their sleep.
  • When a girl begins menstruating, each month her uterine lining fills with blood in preparation for a fertilized egg. If the egg isn't fertilized, she will have a period. If it is fertilized, she will become pregnant.
  • A girl's period may last 3 days to a week, and she can use sanitary napkins (pads) or tampons to absorb the blood.

What Questions Do Kids Ask?

Not surprisingly, kids usually have lots of questions as they learn about puberty. Give your child the time and opportunity to ask questions. Then answer them honestly and openly.

Some of the most common questions are: 

  • What is this hard lump in my breast? Girls may notice small, sometimes tender lumps beneath their nipples as their breasts are beginning to develop. This is perfectly normal. The firmness and tenderness will go away in time as the breasts continue to grow.
  • Why are my breasts so small (or so large)? Breast size is different from girl to girl. Reassure your daughter that, big or small, all breasts are beautiful. It can be hard for girls to appreciate this since they develop at different times and rates. The size and shape of a girl's breasts will change as she continues to develop. But in the end, size won't affect her attractiveness or ability to breastfeed if she becomes a mother someday.
  • Why is my penis so small (or so large)? With boys, the focus can be on the penis. Not all boys develop at the same time or rate, so your son may feel like he is too big or too small. His size will change as he continues to develop. Penises come in different sizes and shapes, but there are a lot less differences in size when penises are erect than when they're not.
  • Why don't I have pubic hair yet? Everyone develops pubic hair, although some teens get it later than others. Just as with breast size or height, the amount or thickness of pubic hair is an individual trait.
  • I'm a boy, so why am I getting breasts? Some boys have temporary breast growth during puberty. Called gynecomastia, it’s caused by changing hormone levels during puberty. It usually disappears, often within a few months to a couple of years.
  • Why haven't I gotten my period yet? As with all puberty’s changes, periods come at different times for different girls. Girls usually don't get their periods until 2 or 2½ years after starting puberty, though some will move through puberty faster, some slower. If your daughter started puberty later than other girls, she will probably get her period later than other girls as well. Some girls may not get their periods until they're 16. This is usually normal, but it can be tough for them when their friends have already gotten their periods.

Keep the Talks Going

Let your child know that you're available to talk, but start conversations too. Discuss puberty — and the feelings that come with its changes — as openly as possible. Parents might feel embarrassed discussing these sensitive topics, but kids often are relieved to have them take the lead once in a while.

It helps to brush up on the subject. So before you answer your child's questions, make sure you get answers to your own. If you're not quite comfortable talking about puberty, practice what you want to say first. Let your child know that it may be a little uncomfortable, but it's important to talk about it.

If there are questions or concerns about puberty and development that you can't answer, ask your child's doctor for advice.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: October 2020